LaPorta picked for US Olympic team

Former University of Florida first baseman Matt LaPorta was named to the 2008 United States Olympic Baseball team on Wednesday. LaPorta joins Brad Wilkerson, who earned a gold medal in the Sydney Summer Games in 2000, as Gators who have been chosen to represent the Red, White and Blue on the diamond in the Olympics.

“Just the chance to represent my country and bring back a gold medal, it would mean so much,” LaPorta said on Sunday after the Futures Game held at Yankee Stadium.

The 2007 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and a consensus All-American, LaPorta became the seventh player in school history to eclipse the .400 plateau in a campaign with a .402 batting average. He established single-season marks for both slugging percentage (.817) and on-base percentage (.582) and led UF in home runs for the third-consecutive year with 20 round-trippers. A finalist for the prestigious USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award and the Brooks Wallace Award, LaPorta completed his collegiate career third on the SEC’s all-time list with 74 dingers, a total which ranks among the top 10 in Division I history. His 206 runs batted in are second on UF’s chart behind Wilkerson (214) and he was the squad’s leader in nine different offensive categories during the ‘07 season.

A first-team All-SEC pick for the second time, LaPorta batted a league-high .446 in league play and ranked first in slugging percentage (.904) and on-base percentage (.627) in his final campaign. He boasted a career-high 20-game hitting streak between March 23 and May 4, 2007, a span in which he batted .466. In addition, the first baseman reached base in 51 of the 52 games he played and totaled 20 multiple-hit outings and 13 multiple-RBI games. LaPorta struck out just 16 times in 244 plate appearances and drew an SEC-best 55 walks, 30 of which were intentional.

He was the first player in SEC history to receive the league’s Player of the Year accolade twice and set a school record by being tabbed as the SEC Player of the Week five times. In the Gator record book, LaPorta is also first in times hit by a pitch (51), third in slugging percentage (.681), fourth in walks (140), fifth in runs (197) and tied for ninth in on-base percentage (.459). He was just the fifth Gator to achieve All-America status in multiple years, joining Perry McGriff (1959, 1960), Tom Moore (1962, 1963), David Eckstein (1996, 1997) and Wilkerson (1996, 1997, 1998). In addition, he is one of three UF players to earn first-team All-South Region twice, along with Jim Watkins (1978, 1979) and Scott Ruskins (1984, 1985). 

LaPorta was selected seventh overall in the 2007 Major League Baseball Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers, and was recently named to the All-Star team in the Class AA Southern League. He was hitting .288 for the Huntsville (Ala.) Stars with 23 doubles, 20 home runs, and 66 RBI in 84 games before being traded to the Cleveland Indians’ organization as part of a package for reigning Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia.

At the time of the trade, LaPorta was leading the Southern League in homers, ranked second in RBI and extra-base hits (41), was third in slugging percentage (.576), tied for fifth in runs scored (56), and sat sixth in on-base percentage (.402). He participated in the Futures Game this past Sunday at Yankee Stadium for Team USA and contributed one of the team’s three hits.

Now playing for the Double A Akron (Ohio) Aeros of the Eastern League, where he is hitting .375 (6-for-16) in four games, LaPorta is in his second year of professional baseball. Last season after signing with the Brewers, he hit .304 with 12 home runs and 31 RBI in 30 games between Class-R Helena and Class-A West Virginia. Prior to the 2008 season, he was named the top prospect and best power-hitting prospect in the Brewers’ organization by Baseball America. He was also tabbed by the publication as the 23rd-best prospect in all of baseball entering the spring.

Fourteen players currently at the Triple-A level were among those named to the 2008 U.S. Olympic Baseball Team, which is now only a few weeks away from a trip to Beijing and a chance to win gold at the Summer Games. In addition to the 14 players currently a step away from the bigs, the 23-man USA roster features seven players in Double-A, one in Single-A and one at the collegiate level.

USA Baseball revealed 23 of the 24 members of a roster that will be led by Davey Johnson, who won World Series championships as a player (Orioles) and manager (Mets). His team features 12 pitchers and 11 position players, and the final roster spot will be filled in the coming days—ahead of Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad’s (BOCOG) cut-off date next Tuesday.

Opening Ceremonies are on 8/8/08, a number that purports good fortune in China, and now it remains to be seen whether that applies to the U.S. contingent. The team will open against Korea on Aug. 13 at Wukesong Baseball Stadium, site of the entire baseball competition. The Olympic Medal Round will be on Aug. 23, a day before Closing Ceremonies.

The 2008 Olympic Games will be the ninth time USA Baseball has utilized Major League-affiliated professional players for international competition, including the 1999 Pan Am Games, the 2000 Olympic Games, the 2001 World Cup, the 2003 Olympic Qualifier, the 2005 IBAF World Cup, and the 2006 COPABE Olympic Qualifying Tournament and the 2007 World Cup.

Team USA did not qualify for the Olympics in 2004. Cuba will be back again in its customary role as one of the favorites, having won three of the four Olympic gold medals since baseball became a medal sport in 1992. The lone exception was settling for silver in 2000 when it was upset by the U.S., which won gold on Ben Sheets’ three-hit shutout.

(The University of Florida Sports Information Department composed this story)